They Walk Among Us, Chapter Thirty-Six: The 1954 Chevy Panel Van

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“Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!”

“Huh?” I pried one crusty lid open and stared bleary-eyed at Jack Hill. He was driving again, after I’d pulled twelve hours straight behind the wheel. “What are you beep-beeping about?”

My voice came out in a kind of croak. I may be a hot young 25 year old stud, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but a man still needs his beauty sleep.

“I’m your alarm clock,” he replied without taking his eyes from the road. He shoved something in my face. “Here. It’s for you.”

I blinked stupidly at the little black box. Wha–?

Oh. Telephone. Smart phone, dumb Treemin.

“Yo?” I croaked at the little monster, holding it up to my ear. My brain was far from fully engaged yet, but something told me that was what you were supposed to do with these things.

“Tree?” The musical voice morphed into open laughter. “Is that you? You don’t sound so good!”

“Uh, thanks, Sissy.” I straightened up in a fumbling hurry, my free hand reaching for the lever to bring the seat back up to its upright position. “You sound great!”

I meant that. Being out of touch for security reasons these past ten days had been tough. I’d been at the wheel when we’d crossed the Utah border, coming out of Colorado on I-70. Safely back in the state we’d admit visiting if anybody came investigating, we’d dared place a series of quick phone calls. Jennifer Trace and my uncle B.J. had picked up their sat phones, delighted to hear we’d survived our journey into the snake pit known as the nation’s capitol.

Not that we’d told them anything, just a Hi, howya doing sort of quickie. None of us were dumb enough to go spilling beans over the airwaves.

Nobody had answered at either my place or Jack’s, though. We’d had to settle for leaving messages.

That had made me a bit nervous, but not enough so to keep the sandman at bay.

“We should be home sometime tonight, tomorrow sunrise at latest,” I said, noticing the raspy growl that confirmed my status: Yep. Exhausted, all right. Imagine that.

“That’s good, baby. Real good.”

“Everything copasetic on the Montana front?”

“Big Sky all the way. Hold on now, honey; there’s somebody wants to talk to you.”

Huh? Who–

“Hey, cowboy!”

Wha–I knew that voice from somewhere…didn’t I?

“Cat got your tongue, o’ studley one?”

No! Could it be? “Judi?! Is that you?”

Her laugh tinkled through me, top to bottom. Woke me right the Hell up, all the rest of the way.

“It ain’t the Jolly Green Giant, Tree.”

“No,” I replied, my brain finally kicking into gear. Lower down, I was pretty sure something else was kicking into gear, too. “And I’m betting it ain’t that little blue Smurfette, either!”

That got her. She started laughing so hard, she choked. Had to hand the phone back to Sissy.

“Surprised you, huh!” Sissy’s voice.

“That you did, honey. I’m guessing this means she called while we were gone? Had you come pick her up?” Man, I was excited. If Judi was with Sissy, that meant I’d beaten out old Jack Hill after all; the lovely young damsel in distress had gone black and wouldn’t be going back. Not if I could help it.

Which was only fair, after all. Hill already had two lovers, even if one of them was a gay guy who could cook and fight with equal expertise.

He’d had three, before I’d acquired one of his leftovers.

“Yeah, babe. Judi called. Got time to hear the story?”

“I think. Jack, where are we?”

“Coming up on Nephi, another twenty minutes. Figured we’d fuel up and grab breakfast at the Flying J.”

“Good enough.” Twenty minutes to the truck stop was just right. I could use a potty break. “Go ahead, Sis. We got time.”

“Yokey dokey. Well, Judi couldn’t reach you on your cell, but she also had our home sat phone, so she tried that. Got hold of me the second day you were gone.”

Things in Missoula, it turned out, had been heating up. Merv the Perv Minske, who’d been terminated by two well placed rounds from our .22 caliber peashooters–Jack’s and mine–had, it turned out, rather an extensive family living in the Missoula area. The Minske clan, along with a bunch of Tordolls who were also related, managed to mind their manners until Merv was properly interred…but once the backfill was done and the worms had taken over, they’d begun their campaign.

The Minskes and the Tordolls, not the worms. Or maybe both.

A comprehensive campaign it was, too. Anonymous poison pen letters containing death threats. Anonymous death threat phone calls. Burning bags of dog poop left on Judi’s front step. Drive-by death threats delivered via bullhorn.

The list goes on.

Things had escalated, slowly but surely, until the night the Minske-Tordoll bunch of troglodytes fire-bombed her house. Nothing fancy, just Molotov cocktails, but they did the trick.

That, she decided, was probably a sign from the Universe. She really should get outa Dodge after all.

Trouble was, she had no money. Her boss at the KO Rodeo Ranch Restaurant had been “gotten to” by one of the Tordolls and hadn’t paid her in weeks. The cops still had Merv’s Dodge dually impounded as “evidence” while they searched for the perpetrators of the Minske Murder (as the Missoulian termed it). Judi’s beatup old Ford Fiesta had four slashed tires and every bit of glass shattered. She did own an ancient Honda Hawk motorcycle, but that thing wouldn’t even start.

So she called.

“Any trouble getting her out?” I asked.

Sissy chuckled. “Nope. We took us a little army of our own down to Missoula. Your uncle B.J. volunteered to drive that humongous old Hudson of his, and Wayne Bruce wouldn’t be left out.”

My heart soared at that. I knew Big Jude had been chafing at the bit for a long time, antsy at being left out of the action. This would have restored him–excecpt…uh-oh. He might be serious competition for Judi’s attentions.

Now, why did I have to go and think of that?

I shouldn’t have worried. Sissy had it covered. “Your uncle impressed the dickens out of Judi when she saw 300 pounds of six-foot-eight black man unfold out of that car in the middle of the night, Tree. Not as a potential lover–she and I have an understanding–but as sort of an armored tank on legs.”

“Oh?”

“Yep. We didn’t take long picking her up. She was ready, had her duffel packed and everything. We couldn’t have been parked at the curb more than two minutes, maybe three. But the Minske-Tordoll bunch must have had the place staked out. This was just after three a.m., Judi’s hustling from her burned-out house, lugging her bag and heading for the car, when here comes a big pickup truck full of bad guys. You’d have thought we were back in the South with the Klan coming to string us all up.”

I could picture it. B.J. must have been orgasmic, getting a chance to make his presence felt at a time like that.

“How many?”

“Bad guys? Three in the pickup bed, two in the cab, everybody but the driver pointing pistols our way and that truck gunning it like we were gonna have a drive-by.”

“And?”

“And B.J. just kind of…unfolded out of that Hudson. There was enough street light to be seen by, and I swear, even as they were charging down the block at us, their eyes kept getting bigger and bigger as they seen Big Jude…manifest, I guess is the word. But of course, your uncle’s no more fool than you are when it comes to street action. He didn’t just make a big old target of himself. He sort of slid back around the car and set his weapon on the roof…and them guys seen, by the time they were within handgun distance, they were looking down the barrel of his pet.

“That, plus me braced over the hood and Wayne around back, both of us with rifles. But it was B.J. that got their attention.”

“Awesome!” It was my turn to laugh till I choked. Sissy wasn’t about to say so over the phone, but when it came to B.J., “his pet” meant the M60 machine gun we’d brought back after mowing down the Morse Code mercs in the mountains. He loved that weapon. Cared for it like a baby.

Five inbred rednecks, brandishing their pistols…only to find themselves facing a belt-fed hardcore mean mother full auto hunk of seriously military artillery, a real blast from the past. It would have been like the schoolyard bully going up against Rambo, except that my uncle was about three times the size of Stallone on Sly’s best day at the gym.

“Any shots fired?” I had to ask.

“Nary a one. Them wannabe bad boys didn’t even have a pistol left in sight by the time the pickup went by us, and the driver had the pedal to the metal. I mean, he was booking it! Already moving pretty good, but he laid rubber even so, right there in front of Judi’s old place.

“So, anyway, we hied our hineys around the block the other way, took a couple of back streets Judi recommended, and back to the mountains we did ride, boldly ride.”

“El Dorado.” She was kinda sorta quoting Jimmy Cahn from the John Wayne movie by that name.

“Yuppers.”

“Exit’s coming up, honey. You tell Judi I’m looking forward to seeing you both when we get home, okay?”

“She knows, Tree. Believe me, she knows. Knows a few things about playtime in the sack, too. Showed me some stuff that was new to me, and I thought I’d been around.”

“Whoa-oa!” It came out in a groan.

I closed the phone, both girls’ laughter echoing in my ears.

Jack Hill had more prosaic things on his mind. “They got chicken livers on the menu,” he announced, his voice reverent. “Can’t pass those up.”

“Ick.” We liked a lot of the same dishes, but I’d pass on the chicken livers. “Hey…what’s that–is that a ’54 Chevy?”

He glanced where I was pointing, at a small parking lot next to an auto repair shop. “That panel van? Looks like it. Wanna take a closer look?”

“After we eat,” I agreed. “My bladder’s about to bust.”

1954 Chevy panel van.

1954 Chevy panel van.


It might seem an odd thing to do, taking time to ogle an antique hunk of machinery when home and hearth were calling, but Jack and I were very much on the same wavelength about it.

Buying an old hunk of iron like this one would be the perfect cover.

We’d traveled openly between Montana and Utah, only hiding our tracks from that point forward. If we purchased an old vehicle, and for whatever reason the feds or Wolf Management Inc. got wise, started looking into our whereabouts for the past week, we could point to the hunk of junk and proudly proclaim our victory at finding such a treasure.

Everyone who’s not an old car collector knows old car collectors are nuts, anyway. Perfect alibi.

Besides, restoring old vehicles to functionality had proven useful in the past. I still mourned Jack’s beautiful 1959 El Camino, even all these long months after abandoning it to a watery grave in Wisconsin. The sacrifice had been necessary, though. If you drive a car old enough to mark you as eccentric, you are automatically underestimated by your enemies. Which is what you want them to do, except for those helpful situations where you want them to overestimate you.

They really don’t make ’em like they used to, and yeah, we enjoy fixing them up. We really do. All three of us, uncle B.J., Jack Hill, and me. Not to mention that it’s unlikely the feds are going to have tracking devices built in as part of any set of wheels you’ve personally restored from the ground up.

“You ready, kid?” Jack asked, letting his belt out a notch to accommodate the last of the chicken livers. Now there’d be a book title: The Last of the Chicken Livers.

“I’d say it’s about time you cut back on the calling me ‘kid’ part, but yeah. Let’s do it.”

He grinned. “Figured that’d get a rise out of you. Tells me you’re still alive, after slamming down three Belgian waffles plus enough bacon and eggs to choke a horse.”

“Horses don’t eat bacon and eggs,” I replied absently, my mind already on the panel van. “That I’ve ever seen anyway.”

Nobody came out to accost us while we circled the Chevy, not even when Jack got down on the concrete to take a look underneath.

“This rear end’s anything but stock, Tree,” he announced. “If it’s what I think it is, we wouldn’t even need to swap that out. It’s good to go.”

“Ready to go talk to whoever’s in the shop?”

“Might as well.” He scrambled to his feet, dusting off the knees of his jeans with his cowboy hat. “Not much left to see out here.”

We were agreed. If this beast was for sale, or if we could sell the heck out of the owner and make it for sale, we were more than interested.

What the hey. Among other things, we were both salesmen, weren’t we?

As it turned out, the deal wasn’t all that hard to make.

Rod Johnson ran the auto shop. He was scheduled to do some work on the ’54 Chevy’s engine but hadn’t started yet.

“Belongs to Ferd Schenk.” The mechanic wiped his hands on a shop rag, removing a bit of grease. A real mechanic, not one of those fancy schmancy wussy “auto technicians” with the nitrile gloves and fingernails that never needed cleaning after a shift.

Ferd? Jack and I looked each other, struggling to keep our faces straight? Ferd?

“It’s going to take some doing, both inside and out, but he’s figuring to restore it all the way.”

That didn’t sound good. A guy with auto restoration on the brain…that can be a tough sell, prying his pet project out of his clutches.

One thing, though: The auto shop was doing the engine work. If the owner was a real car guy, he’d be turning the wrenches himself.

Rod gave us Ferd’s number. Jack had to make the call; I didn’t think I could say, “Hello? Ferd?” Not without cracking up giggling, I couldn’t.

Ferd was home, until he wasn’t. Jack talked him into coming down to chat about the ’54, then talked him into selling his baby. From the time Ferd Schenk pulled up in a late model Cadillac Escalade until the time the title changed hands…twenty-seven minutes flat.

I was standing right there, but I’m still not completely sure how Hill pulled that one off.

Might have been the gold.

It took most of the rest of the morning to arrange for a local towing outfit to pick up the Chevy and hold it in storage until we could get back with the ranch’s Ford dually and a flatbed trailer to haul it on up to Montana.

“Give Sissy a call,” the old Protector said, “Let her know we got held up a few hours, may not make it in until closer to lunch time tomorrow.”

I snorted at that one. “Hah! Now it’s me ye want to do yer dirty work fer ya, is it, old man? Wouldn’t want to be laying the news on poor Carolyn and Wayne all personal-like, eh?”

He did the eyebrow cocking thing at my Irish brogue. Did it well, too. I think he’d been practicing, maybe studying my uncle’s technique.

I made the call.

Afterward, looking out at the snowclad peaks of the Wasatch Mountains, something occurred to me.

“Didn’t Ghost tell you one time, he wrecked his Subaru right around here somewhere?”

Jack nodded. “Some miles south, yeah. South of Nephi. Running the fast lane, got distracted looking at them mountains just like you’re doing now, come to with the traffic piled up in front of him and nowhere to go.”

“South of Nephi.”

“Yep.”

“Well…that’s still close enough, old man. I’ll watch the mountains. You keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.”

“Sure thing. Whatever you say. You’re the boss, massa.”

“Unh-huh.”

We both laughed then. Our enemies were still out there, still keenly interested in our destruction, but the highway was clear and we’d be home tomorrow.

Life was good.

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